Court throws out city appeal of RCSD lawsuit

Sep 4, 2019

Credit James Brown WXXI

A panel of NYS Supreme Appellate Court judges on Wednesday upheld a decision that keeps the City of Rochester from having an advisory referendum in November on the city school district.

Earlier this year, City Council, acting at the request of Mayor Lovely Warren, passed a local law that would remove mention of the Rochester school board from the city charter and would put the change to a public vote. 

Warren has wanted the state to take control of the school district. The school board sued the city in an attempt to get the ballot measure struck down, and State Supreme Court Justice Scott Odorisi  ruled in its favor. On Wednesday, a panel of state Appellate Division judges upheld  Odorisi's decision.

The proposed referendum also asked residents to vote on removing board members’ salaries.

City Attorney Patrick Beath said the measure, which passed in June, requires a public vote. 

“Where a local law amends the charter, to remove elective offices, or to reduce the salary of an incumbent in those offices in their term, it must go through a mandatory referendum,” said Beath. “What the public is being asked to do in the referendum is either ratify or reject the actions already taken by Council and the mayor.”

He also argued that the city charter was put in place by the state, so City Council’s vote to remove the board for five years does not conflict with state law. 

Judge Erin Peradotto, who was on the panel, pushed back on Beath.

“It seems we are still talking about public education here and the administration of public education, which seems to be a function of the state,” said Peradotto.

No matter what happens with a referendum like this, only the state Legislature can remove a board of education. Beath argued that the city has to take action in order for the state to make that move.

“If the contingent action and that referendum has never taken place as a precondition, then the law is not going to be effective, it’s not going to be valid,” said Beath.

The Board of Education’s attorney, Alison Moyer, argued that the referendum is advisory and the law behind it is invalid.

“The law can only take effect if some future event happens, and that may never occur,” said Moyer. “Referendums are advisory, if the subject of the referendum of is preempted by state law, which is exactly the case here.”

Moyer was also concerned with the wording of the referendum. 

“The language of the referendum that was submitted to the Board of Elections was to suspend the terms of the commissioners and eliminate the board of Education. This could have misled voters of the practical effect of their vote,” said Moyer. 

In a statement on the ruling Mayor Lovely Warren said the following:

“Our children’s education remains the key to a better and stronger city. Today’s decision does not weaken my resolve to fix a broken system and provide our kids a fighting chance at life. We will continue to demand our state legislators act, and work locally to realize the Distinguished Educator’s plan throughout our school district. Through this work we will make sure the voices and ideas of parents, grandparents and students are heard. I am committed to working and finding common ground with all those willing to put the needs of our children first. Together, we can still deliver the change that builds better schools, a better city and a better community for all.”

CITY Newspaper contributed to this story.